Saturday, February 28, 2009

10 Cold Sweat


The windowless yellow room soon became unbearably hot and the smell of disinfectant made Tom nauseous. He took off his jacket and loosened his pink silk tie. "I need air," he mumbled as he got up and swung open the door. A blast of cold air swept in from the dark corridor, in the middle of which stood Batbold, immaculately dressed in a black suit, grey tie and brilliant white starched shirt. Tom, beads of perspiration on his brow, crumpled shirt and tie askew, was startled to see him there.

Batbold looked him up and down. "You first day hard work, eh?"

Tom, who had only been there half an hour, straightened his tie and replied somewhat hesitantly, "Not exactly. I'm still not sure what it is I am supposed to be doing here."

Batbold strode past him into the office, said something to Shishmajig in Mongolian, then sat on Tom's chair. Shishmajig did not stand up. Tom followed then stood hesitantly in the middle of his own office, feeling more than a little peeved, but attempted a smile nonetheless. He was still a PR man after all. Batbold snapped something at Shishmajig, who immediately stood up, pushed his chair back and left the room, closing the door behind him. Batbold pointed to the empty chair. Tom sat, glanced down at the red plastic bucket and felt even more nauseous. Wet patches of sweat were beginning to appear under his armpits and even on the front of his shirt.

"So Mr Tom, Perhaps is time to talk."

Tom nodded and smiled.

"In three months we elections have. All our socialist friend governments gone. Only now Korea, Cuba, umm, Mongolia. We not go," he said, clenching his fists. "But we realists are."

Are what? Tom thought, confused by Batbold's English. "So you want me to help with an election campaign. Is that it?"

Batbold stroked his chin as he thought about this. Tom looked at his square jaundiced face and narrow eyes and wondered if he was wearing a wig - the bluish-black hair with the quiff at the front looked unnatural – but, it wasn't.

"Don’t think we are stupid! We know we can no win election. The world, the people now against us. So, we want some tricks. You understand?"

Not really, Tom thought, but replied, thinking of the money, "I think so."

"Good," snapped Batbold, apparently satisfied that he had been understood. Then he stood up, strode to the door, and opened it.

He paused in the doorway, half turned, looked down at Tom and said, "This week you make first trick, OK? And, with what Tom understood to be a veiled threat, he added, "Mr Enkhbold waiting," and left, closing the door behind him, thinking to himself, I wonder if the foreigner understood me? He had wanted to say more, he needed to say more if he was to save his own neck, but he'd been too proud to embarrass himself with lengthy explanations in his broken English.

Tom moved across to his own desk, slumped forward despondently, put his head in his hands and wondered, What the hell have I got myself into here? Perhaps I should have asked him for more clarification. Tom certainly didn’t want to ask Shishmajig. That would just make me look even more stupid in his eyes, he thought, with an incipient dislike for the assistant who he’d hoped would be a friend. Then an idea struck him and he perked up: I know, I'll ask Olga Shevchenko. Maybe she can explain what exactly it is they want from me. The thought of the elegant interpreter made him smile. Perhaps she would be a ‘friend.’

The office door swung open, Shishmajig entered, nodded a vague acknowledgment, sat down and started doodling again. Tom turned to him and asked, “Shishmajig, where can I find Miss” Was she a Miss? “ Shevchenko?”

Shishmajig pointed at the ceiling: “She has a space next to Mr Enkhbold’s office.”

“Thanks, I’m just off out for a minute.”

Shishmajig raised his thin eyebrows, grabbed his pencil and resumed doodling furiously.

Tom shivered down the cold, dark corridor, as the sweat on his body turned almost instantly to icy water. He sneezed as he passed the cloakroom, where Mrs Jargal, who was in her regular place, seated behind the counter, knitting another woolly hat, like the one she was wearing now, tut-tutted her disapproval of this foreign intruder in the House of Friendly Relations.

As Tom mounted the creaking wooden stairs he was passed by three burly men with closely-cropped hair and identical black suits. They were clearly in a hurry and barely gave him a glance as they headed down to the ground floor. Bodyguards? Secret police? Thugs? The possibilities ran through Tom’s mind in quick succession. I bet they came from the third floor. Now might be the time to go up and have a nose around up there, he decided, and continued upwards past the second floor. He slowed down and each footstep became more deliberate as he neared the top of the stairs. He was on tiptoe now and acutely aware of two things: the clammy cold sweat which seemed to be eating into his body like acid and his heart thundering, “thump, thump, thump.” Now he was more than nervous, he was scared. He wavered as he remembered the thuds and the muffled cries from the day before, but curiosity drove him on until his right foot slipped at the sound of two angry voices just ahead.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

9 A Difficult Question


“Welcome to the House of Friendly Relations, Mr Rawlinson.” The young man in the ill-fitting black suit, yellow polyester tie and dark brown plastic shoes, thrust out his hand. Tom grabbed it. It was, like his own, icy cold. A shiver passed through them.

"Nice to meet you again. Thank you so much for helping me at Irkutsk Airport. If it weren’t for you, I might still be in Siberia now.” He attempted to smile through the cold.

“My name is Shishmishig. We’ll be working together on this important project and I am honoured to be your assistant.” His cheeks were even rosier than they had been when Tom first met him in the immigration queue in Irkutsk.

As Mrs Jargal, the Heroine of the State, scowled at him and took his beige Burberry raincoat, Tom made a mental note: Thingamajig could be a friend. He also noted that he had the same dark rings under his eyes, unusual for someone his age, as Olga Shevchenko, the interpreter. They must work very long hours here, he thought.

Shishmishig, battling with a hacking smoker’s cough aggravated by the sub-zero temperatures, led him through a dark corridor with peeling yellow paint to their new office, on the ground floor, behind the cloakroom. It too had yellow paint, was small, windowless, and smelled of disinfectant. There were two poorly varnished, dark brown desks, one big; one small, and two orange-painted chairs. In one corner, next to an old, cream-painted radiator, was a red plastic bucket.

The only decoration was a framed photo of an unsmiling, slightly-balding Mongolian man, with a chest full of medals, hanging slightly askew on one of the yellow walls. Such an unpleasant yellow, Tom thought. “Our president”, Shishmishig added helpfully.

Tom waited, just to be sure, until Shishmishig seated himself behind the smaller of the two desks, before placing his expensive, brown, Italian leather briefcase (a birthday present from Jane) on the biggest desk, and sat down.

“Perhaps you could tell me a bit more about what our job is here?”

Shishmishig half-smiled, in an embarrassed way, “Sorry?”

“Well what have Enkhbold and Batbold told you about our, our, errm, project?”

“Mr Enkhbold and Mr Batbold," he added pointedly, "have told me that I am your assistant, Mr Rawlinson.”

The silence was deafening. No thudding noises or screams here Tom noted with cold comfort as the yellow room, with its overpowering smell of disinfectant, seemed to close in on him inch by inch.

“Scrape, scrape.” Shishmishig had taken out a blue pencil and placed it in the heavy metal sharpener which was screwed to one corner of his desk. He brushed the shavings onto the bare concrete floor with a sweep of his left hand. As he did so, Tom heard the scrape of the ring on his wedding finger.

“Are you married?”

“No. Are you, Mr Rawlinson?”

This, for Tom, was a difficult question. His answer might affect how he was expected to behave for the rest of his time in Mongolia.

He picked up the red pencil that had been lying across the blank sheet of paper on his desk, looked directly into his new assistant’s narrow eyes, and said rather too rapidly:

“No, I’m not either.”

Shishmishig, who at the age of twenty-four already had a wife and two children, but who had been instructed by Batbold not to tell the foreigner the truth about ANYTHING, gave Tom a deliberate grin to cover up the slight look of disapproval that had started to appear on his face.

Tom, sensing that he was already in danger of losing any authority he had over his ‘assistant’, stood up, took two paces across the claustrophobic room, placed the red pencil in the sharpener, and started to grind. Their eyes locked, but they were both momentarily distracted when a large bubble inside the radiator burst with a metallic ‘clunk’. The room was just beginning to heat up.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

8 A Strange Coincidence


Snuggled down in the heavily-starched, white linen sheets, which still carried the acrid, chemical smell of the hotel laundry, Tom felt cocooned from the strange, frozen world lying in wait for him beyond the frost-covered window of Room 315.

As he sat up in the creaking bed, his first thought was of her, and this made him smile, enjoying the sensation of the slight aches, which rippled through his body as he stretched and shivered, and felt so alive. Where was she now? Would she be there tonight? He wanted to stroke her long black, Oriental hair, touch her soft ivory skin, taste her, breathe her, and just be with her, be with her...


"That bloody drill!" Tom threw his pillow at the window, jumped up and hurried into the bathroom in search of warmth. At the turn of a tarnished tap, the ancient pipes juddered and groaned into action until a trickle of steaming, pale orange water emerged from the oversized shower head. The nearly boiling water splashed on his cold body, making him jump and swear. Fortunately, the little, pale green tablet of Russian soap didn't produce any lather, and he had been deliberately sparing with the shampoo this morning. He gave up after a couple of minutes, pulled back the plastic shower curtain and emerged still shivering in the steamy air.

He cleared a patch of the steamed-up bathroom mirror and started to shave with one of the blue, plastic disposable razors, he'd brought from England. As he did so, he touched his wet, receding hairline with his other hand, looked at the line across his freckled forehead, and thought, she must be at least fifteen years younger than me. But, although he wasn't aware of it himself, Tom looked younger than his thirty-six years. He had the body of a skinny youth, and his pale ginger hair, innocent green eyes and freckled complexion simply enhanced that impression. 'Lanky streak of piss,' they'd called him at school. That's when they weren't calling him 'ginger nut.' It was only the fact that he'd scraped into the school cricket team, allied to the popularity of his younger brother, Christopher, who hadn't inherited their Irish mother's colouring, that had prevented him from being viewed as a total swot. He hadn't been one of the popular boys, but he’d made a few friends and somehow managed to pull off the trick of finishing top of the class in every subject, without becoming a victim of bullying.

He plastered the wet hair across the high forehead, which still bothered him, wrapped a white towel around his waist, and stepped back into the bedroom, arms folded across his almost hairless chest, to keep out the cold air, which he could feel reaching out to him with its icy fingers, from the frosty window.

Of the two suits hanging in the orange, plywood wardrobe, Tom selected the flashier, pale grey one and unhesitatingly went for the salmon pink tie. As he tied the knot in the mirror, he started to hum a Lisa Stansfield song. He even sang some of the lyrics: "Been around the world and I,I,I can't find my baby…"He broke into a big smile, because, at least so he thought, he had found his.

He was still smiling when he walked into the hotel dining hall and slid onto a seat, just two tables away from the young Russian couple, who were, again, the only other diners there. He greeted them, "Privet,” which he believed was the Russian for 'hello'.

The man answered with a heavily-accented "Hello."

"You speak English then?"

The couple looked embarrassed and resumed eating their breakfast.

The pretty waitress’s footsteps echoed across the hall, as she came out of the kitchen to serve him his stale bread and yoghurt quickly. He hadn't had to wait more than a minute. This was going to be a good day.

He walked briskly out of the dining hall, across the lobby and out into the freezing Mongolian winter, skidding across the ice that gripped the sidewalk and almost falling into the black limousine, which was there bang on time at 8.30.

The driver, like everybody else out that morning, with the exception of Tom, was wearing a heavy overcoat, gloves, scarf and big fur hat. He still smelled of stale cigarettes and now there were a couple of new aromas, body odour and vodka, added to the mix Tom breathed inside the black limousine, as it swept through the icy streets to deposit him outside the House of Friendly Relations.

Tom looked up at the sky, which was bluer than any he had ever seen in England or even on the summer holidays he had taken with Jane in Spain and Greece. The black birds were still circling overhead. If anything, there were even more of them now. As he entered his strange new workplace, Tom's smile instantly disappeared from his face. What did these people want from him, why did they make him feel so uncomfortable, and what really went on inside this building? But then, what struck Tom as the oddest of coincidences occurred: there in the hallway, waiting to greet him, was a face he instantly recognised.

Monday, February 23, 2009

7 The Axe Hero Bar


The drilling outside reached a crescendo. Tom shouted at the window, "For God's sake, stop! Please stop." And, almost immediately, it did. But, just as he thought he could finally sleep in peace, there was another, more urgent noise. The old Bakelite phone, next to his bed, was ringing again.

Tom shouted into the phone, "Yes!" There was a pause and then a voice that instantly reminded him of Vincent Price in a Hammer horror movie, started to speak, very carefully enunciating every word.

"Is that Tom Rawlinson?"


"Langley here; Gerald Langley."

"Should I know you?"

"Possibly; possibly not. But, as we are two of only seven Westerners in the entire country I thought we should meet. Don't you agree?"

"Umm, well, I guess so. I'm still a bit jet-lagged, but…"

"Very well then: I’ll meet you in the Axe Hero Bar in half an hour."

"The what bar?"

"Axe Hero. It's your hotel bar. You are in the Sukhe Bator Hotel, yes? Well that's what Sukhe Bator means: Axe Hero."

"And where exactl....."

"Click." Gerald Langley was already on his way.

The Axe Hero was one of the sleaziest looking bars Tom had ever seen; not that he had seen many sleazy bars in the 36 years of his middle-class life in English suburbia. As he entered, it was very difficult to see more than a few yards until he had adjusted his eyes to the dimly-lit, smoke-filled haze. The bar was full of black marketeers, drunken Romanian wrestlers, who were in town for a competition, Russian soldiers' wives, a couple of aging Mongolian bar girls and in one of the darkest recesses, a very odd looking character indeed, waving at him: Gerald Langley.

Gerald had obviously spent many other nights like this. His eyes were little more than bloodshot slits, almost completely hidden in deep black circles that extended from his cheek bones to his eyebrows; his spectacles were held together with elastoplast, and there were one or two cuts and bruises on one side of his face. His closely-cropped, sandy brown hair, flecked with grey, looked as though he had cut it himself, as indeed, he had. God only knows what he looks like in daylight, Tom reflected, as he proffered his hand.

"So glad you could make it. Please take a seat. Care to join me in a drink?

Drinks in the Axe Hero bar were only served by the bottle. It was more than a thousand tugriks for a bottle of whisky - fifty dollars at the official exchange rate. It transpired, however, that if real dollars were actually proffered a beer would appear from under the counter at a considerably less outrageous price. They started with beers and a bottle of Mongolian vodka, and proceeded to get drunk like everybody else in the bar.

"So, Gerald, what do you do here in Ulan Bator?"

"I'm with the British Council."

"I see. Is there a British Council office here then?"

"No, it's too small-scale an operation for that. I'm very loosely attached to the embassy. They thought it would be a good idea for me to meet you, say hello, welcome you to Mongolia, that sort of thing."

"That's very kind of you. I must admit it's nice to meet a fellow Englishman. I was feeling rather lost and alone."

"Then I have some good news for you. You are invited to the embassy. They have a small bar in the back garden, where we meet once a week and tomorrow's the night."

They talked about home, where they came from, where they went to school, and discovered they had very little in common, so, by the time they'd reached the topic of football, Gerald's attention had turned to the bottom of a bottle, and Tom’s to the exit, and bed.

As he was walking down the corridor, leaving Gerald to his vodka-soaked slumbers at the bar, a Mongolian girl appeared in front of him. He hadn't seen her coming: suddenly, she was just there. As she passed, she half-turned and gave him the most enigmatic and yet, at the same time, the most beautiful look that he’d had ever seen. It sucked all of his previous life out of him and left his tiny reflections swirling, lost in her dark eyes. She paused coquettishly at the end of the corridor, then, enigmatically whispered something, but whether it was addressed to him, someone inside the bar, or even herself, he could not tell.

She couldn’t be more than twenty-years-old, he guessed. With her long, black hair, high-collared, blue silk cheongsam, flawless ivory skin, a touch of red lipstick and slender legs tottering inexpertly on high heels, she looked a picture of innocence on the verge of corruption. Tom wanted to save her, or did he just want to save her for himself?

He started to walk back down the stairs twice, paced restlessly in the corridor, then walked up and down the stairs again, wondering whether to return to the bar, but when he finally did, she had gone. He ducked out again quickly before Gerald could see him, and returned to his room, where he spent a sleepless night, half imagining the beginning of a rapturous relationship, and half fearing that, at that very moment, she was with someone else. But, he knew that after seeing her, his life could never be the same again, and he was right.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

6 The House of Friendly Relations


"So, what exactly is it that you want from me?"

The elegant interpreter rephrased the question for Mr Enkhbold, who exchanged a look, laden with dark secrets, with Batbold, before looking at a space somewhere between Tom and the interpreter, and replying in his soft, droning Mongolian. The interpreter turned to Tom and started to open her mouth, but before she could utter a word, Tom asked, "By the way, what is your name?" She seemed surprised that anyone would want to know and Tom had half anticipated her answer, "Why?"

"Just wanted to know. That's all."

Mr Enkhbold turned to her. He was clearly not a man used to being ignored by anyone. The interpreter seemed flustered and Tom felt a pang of guilt for causing her this moment of anxiety.

She addressed Tom once more, "We want…we want…friendly relations." Then she added almost as an afterthought, "And my name is Olga Shevchenko." A Russian name, Tom thought to himself. Yes, she did look different. Her eyes were Asiatic, but her delicate features reminded Tom of a famous Georgian ballerina he had once seen in London. In fact, he started to say, "You look like..," but then thought better of it.

"Friendly relations with who?"

Mr Enkhbold exchanged another look with Batbold.

"With everyone", Olga explained, before adding, "Would you like some tea?"

There was another, much louder thud from the ceiling above, accompanied by what sounded like a muffled cry. This time she couldn't stop herself looking up. In fact, they all looked up, except Mr Enkhbold, who snapped something at her in Mongolian.

"For example?" Tom interjected quickly.

Olga considered her interpretation of Mr Enkhbold's reply carefully, "With some groups of people the House of Friendly Relations finds unsympathetic to their cause."

"And what exactly is their cause?"

It sounded to Tom as though something heavy had fallen on the floor in the room above.

This time they all looked up: even Mr Enkhbold. Then there was a louder noise, much closer. Tom jumped. Something outside had banged against the window. Perhaps a bird had flown into it.

The door opened, and a young man in a grubby white tunic brought in their tea.

“How would you like your tea, Mr Rawlinson? With milk and sugar?” Olga enquired.

“It’s all right, you can call me Tom. A little milk, but no sugar, please.”

After they had all sipped some tea, the meeting resumed.

“Well, their, I mean our cause is the social welfare of the Mongolian people” Olga interpreted.

“I see. And what type of people would be unsympathetic to that?” Tom asked, genuinely surprised.

There followed a short discussion between Olga, Mr Enkbold and Batbold, the meaning of which Tom could only guess at.

“We have decided that you must be very tired after your long trip. A driver will take you back to your hotel. Tomorrow will be a big day for you. We will show you your office and you will meet your assistant.”

“My assistant?”

“Yes, your assistant.”

At that, Mr Enkhbold and Batbold stood up. The meeting was over.

Olga accompanied Tom downstairs to the exit and watched him step out onto Brezhnev Street, which was still eerily deserted. Tom looked back up at the second floor and thought he caught a glimpse of Mr Enkbold and Batbold staring down at him from one of the windows. Then he noticed again the black birds flying overhead. Were they crows? Ravens perhaps? Why so many?

The chauffeur opened the rear door of the black limousine and Tom stepped in. It appeared the driver, who clearly hadn’t shaven that morning and stank of stale cigarettes, spoke no English, as he merely grunted disapprovingly when Tom tried to engage him in conversation.

They swept away down Brezhnev Street, passing two policemen who seemed to be involved in a heated argument with some people at a bus stop. Tom thought of home, familiar places, friends, family….all gone now.

As he crossed the hotel lobby, the receptionist called out to him, “Mr Rawlinson, there was a Mr Gerald here to see you.”

“Mr Gerald?” Tom knew nobody of that name.

“Did he leave a message?

“No, but he said he will come back.”


The receptionist shrugged and resumed reading his newspaper. At least this one speaks English, Tom thought, as he mounted the stairs and walked back down the long corridor to Room 315.

Mr Gerald? Who on earth could he be?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

5 The Woman with Sad Eyes


It had all started one morning with a phone call to his office...

"Hello, Tom. How are you keeping?" He recognised that voice. It was Peter Hargrime from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Oh, not so bad. How are you, Peter? I haven't heard from you for ages."

"Can’t complain. You know my job . And how about you, Tom?"

“Well, to be honest, things have been better. Business has dropped off a bit lately.”

"Then I've got some very good news for you. Something rather unusual has come up that should be right up your street. We've had this request from the Mongolian government. They want someone to go out there and help them with a bit of PR. The sort of thing you did for us, when we had that very embarrassing situation with you know who. Seems they’ve found some money from somewhere. In fact, I think it’s fair to say, there would be a lot of money in it for the right person; a lot of money. And as you're the only person I know who's ever been to the place..."


"Yes it is a bad line, isn't it? Can you still hear me all right?"

"Yes, but..."

"Oh, that's all right then. I thought I'd have to repeat the whole thing again. Well, as I was saying, you're the only person I know who's ever been to Mongolia. I remember when you showed us those pictures of you skiing, how surprised I was. You'd never imagine they'd have ski slopes in a country like that, would you? Just think £100,000, maybe more, for less than six months' work, and skiing too."

"But, that was Mo..."

"What? Hello Tom? What was that?”

Tom held the phone away from his ear and, for brief a moment, wrestled with his conscience, then he smiled like he hadn’t smiled in months: an almost, but not quite, wicked grin. Maybe this would solve all of his problems. It was fate, destiny….

"Oh, nothing. What did you say? £100,000 for six months’ work?"

It's his own bloody fault, he thought, if he doesn't know the difference between Mongolia and Moldavia. Why should I tell him?

"Yes, that's right. I knew you'd be interested. You're just the man for the job, Tom. What with the way you handled the press for us, and your previous Mongolian experience. Do you think you could get away for that long?"

I’d like to get away forever, Tom thought, from a failed marriage, a failed business, a failed everything. Even his car had failed to start that morning,

“Yes, I think I could just manage it. Let me check my diary.” He put down the phone and noisily shuffled some papers next to it. Afterwards he reflected, that wouldn’t have sounded much like a diary. And a long time after that, he wondered, Why me? Peter Hargrime never even liked me. But as he was to slowly discover, personal likes, honesty, integrity and things of that nature really didn’t have much relevance in all that was to follow.

"Here is we arrive, Mr Tom: the House of Friendly Relations." It was just another grey, three-storey, utilitarian block on Brezhnev Street. Black birds circled overhead.

They brushed the ice and snow off their feet and deposited their coats with a stout cleaning lady who doubled up as a cloakroom attendant. Tom noticed that she had a gold medal pinned, with a rainbow-coloured ribbon, to the front of her old cardigan. When he asked Mr Batbold if she had fought in the war against the Japanese, he replied, "No. It because she five boys have. Government give medal.” Mrs Jargal, the Heroine of the State, smiled benignly at the slightly younger Mr Batbold, if not at the suspicious foreigner. She turned her back on him and walked into a dark recess, with their coats still draped over her arm.

Tom was whisked into a meeting, in a cavernous room, with a long mahogany dining table running the length of it, at the head of which sat the sinister looking, old man, who had been waiting in the limousine for him outside the airport. His name was Mr Enkhbold, and he was Mr Batbold's boss: the Director of the Committee for Relations with Capitalist Countries and U.N. Organisations. He spoke through an interpreter. They were something of a mismatch vocally: Mr Enkhbold droned on monotonously while the interpreter, a woman of faded elegance, in her late thirties, dressed in an old-fashioned business suit, said just a few words of English in a bright, almost chirpy voice. She stopped interpreting Mr Enkhbold's words momentarily, when there was a thud from the room above. He could see that she was making an effort not to turn her face upward to the source of the disturbance, and it was then that he first looked really closely at her and noticed the beginnings of the dark rings under her sad eyes.

Friday, February 20, 2009

4 A Brain Damaging Day?


Tom's head felt almost too heavy to lift. He wondered where he was and if he'd been drugged. He reached out, as he lay, face-down on the bed, groaning. His hand brushed against the phone sending it crashing to the floor. He reached down, picked the phone up and listened. There was a buzzing noise, with a faint voice somewhere in the background.

"Hello? Hello?" Tom shouted. But there was no discernible reply.

He stood up, stretched, and walked to the bathroom. There was a trickle of orange-coloured water from the noisy, shuddering shower: barely enough to rinse off the soap. Tom brushed his teeth. He opened the wardrobe, dressed in a blue pinstripe suit, crumpled white shirt and polka dot tie, then headed, with some trepidation, along the corridor and downstairs to the hotel restaurant.

It reminded Tom of a school assembly hall. There was such a high ceiling that the place had a slight echo. Tables were laid with grubby white tablecloths for more than one hundred people. That morning there were two other diners: a young Russian couple. At one end of this vast hall there was a stage, at the centre of which stood the biggest juke box that Tom had ever seen. The young Russian man walked up to it, fed it a coin, then, admiring the palm of his hand, returned to his companion. The selector ground noisily into action. It was a Russian song. All that Tom knew was that it sounded sad.

After about ten minutes he started to grow a little restless. There was no sign of any food and the tinny echo of the jukebox was becoming increasingly irritating. He toyed with the cruets and even contemplated eating their contents. "Ahaa". The gloom was temporarily lifted. The younger of the two women from last night emerged from the kitchen, in a dark blue uniform and frilly white apron. She had a cheeky face. The waitress took the Russian couple's order. The "clip, clip, clip" of her black patent leather shoes echoed around the hall as she returned to the kitchen. Ten more minutes passed before the waitress re-emerged from the kitchen.

Tom raised his right hand and gave an attention-seeking cough. She turned her eyes upwards to examine the spot on the ceiling directly above his head, before serving the young couple with, what appeared to be, at that distance, glasses of yoghurt and the ubiquitous slices of stale bread; and then returned to the kitchen, without giving Tom a further glance. He jumped up out of his chair, followed her and swung open the kitchen door. Her blood-spattered workmate was standing there, with a cigarette hanging out of her half-open mouth. This time they didn't argue: they both shooed Tom away. He returned to his seat.

A familiar voice startled him: "Good eat?"

Tom swung around to see Mr. Batbold standing behind him.

"There seems to be some problem," Tom said.

He tried to explain his difficulties. Mr Batbold walked toward the kitchen door and soon emerged with his arm around the shoulders of the pretty young waitress.

"You wrong place sit. You must there sit." He indicated the end of the hall, where the young Russian couple were sitting, enjoying their glasses of yoghurt and slices of stale bread. They waved to him and smiled.

Batbold nodded his head towards them and said, "Here Mongolian. There foreign guest. Tomorrow you know. Then no make problem, OK?"

"What about now?" Tom asked.

"Breakfast finish now."


Mr Batbold pointed at a sign at the entrance. Although it was in Mongolian and Russian,"7.00 - 8.30" was clear enough.

"Sorry," Tom muttered.

The black limousine and driver were waiting outside. It was another potentially brain damaging day.

The car swept around the statue of Lenin and turned into Peace Avenue. As Tom looked left down Karl Marx Avenue, he could see the mountains and the Monument to the Soviet Tank Regiment. The centre of Ulan Bator was quite different from the yurt suburbs. If it hadn't been for the occasional Buddhist temple, this could have been a provincial city anywhere in Russia. They passed the massive Sukhe Bator Square. It reminded Tom of Red Square in Moscow, but it was flanked by even more austere edifices. They swept past the grim People's Hural and the Palace of Young Technicians.

Tom muttered, "What the hell am I doing here?" Mr. Batbold swung round and looked at him fixedly. Was there a hint of menace in his eyes?


Thursday, February 19, 2009

3 The Phone Rings


The Tupolev landed with a bump and skidded to a halt at the end of the runway. Tom stepped off the plane and looked up at the snow-covered mountains. On one of them he could see the Monument to Soviet Soldiers. The country was overrun with Soviet troops, helping to keep the Moscow-backed regime in power. The Berlin Wall had just fallen and revolution was in the air.

He was met at the airport by Mr Batbold, the Secretary General of the Committee for Relations with Capitalist Countries, a squarely-built, dark-suited man, in his mid-forties, who was clearly aware of his own importance. Tom was waved through passport control and customs ahead of all the other passengers. He looked back over his shoulder at the heaving mass of fur-clad people poring over the scattered contents of opened suitcases, and desperately hacking away at boxes, under the impatient gaze of the immigration officers. Mr. Batbold grabbed his elbow and led him away. There was no turning back now.

They hurried out of the dark, congested airport building into the Land of the Blue Skies. Mr Batbold took his bags and loaded them into an ancient, black Russian limousine. Inside were the driver and an elderly man with a sinister face. They were both swathed in several layers of clothing, surmounted with mink hats. Neither of them appeared to speak any English, but the old man looked at Tom suspiciously and whispered to Mr Batbold as they swept through the snow-clad landscape.

Mr Batbold frequently rubbed his eyebrows. He looked tense. Tom wondered why. He didn't know that when he was somewhere above Eastern Europe, the first Mongolian opposition party had been established at a mass rally in Sukhe Bator Square. They were demanding a multi-party system in this, the second oldest communist state in the world, where thousands had been executed for expressing milder views in Stalinist-style purges.

They drove quickly and silently through the yurt suburbs. Tom stared out of the window, but could see no sign of life, until they entered a square. The car screeched to a halt behind a statue of Lenin. They had arrived at the Sukhe Bator Hotel, a grey, oblong block. Mr Batbold guided Tom through the pile of forms the receptionist had thrust at him, which was just as well as she didn't speak any English and seemed to consider the arrival of a guest who spoke neither Russian nor Mongolian quite outrageous, if not something to be actively discouraged. As Mr Batbold turned to go Tom opened his mouth and almost said something, but what could he say? This has all been a dreadful mistake. Can I go home now?

At the end of a long corridor covered with threadbare, red carpet, he reached Room 315, where he fell into a fitful sleep, staring at a long, dingy, brown stain on the wall and listening to a pneumatic drill at the building site conveniently located outside his window. He awoke several hours later with a headache and a bad taste in his mouth. He returned to the reception desk; it was deserted. There was an eerily large dining hall; it was also deserted.

Tom wandered around, forlornly, clutching Mr Batbold's calling card in one hand, and periodically calling out, "Hello. Is anybody there?" His voice echoed around the empty hall. Then, he saw the kitchen door and entered, groaning, "Food". A stout woman in a blood-spattered apron tried to shoo him away. A younger woman emerged at her elbow. Tom rubbed his stomach and clutched his clawed fingers to his mouth. The two women seemed to be arguing.

The result was that Tom returned to his room with a bottle of something brown, sweet and fizzy, two slices of stale bread and some lukewarm chunks of fatty mutton, like a mouse scurrying back to his bolt-hole. The pneumatic drill fell silent.

He awoke again briefly to the sound of a group of men shouting next door, but his head was too heavy to lift until six hours later when a black Bakelite telephone, of the sort that he had seen in 1940s detective films, started ringing, "Durring, durring, durring..."